One of the most eloquent responses to Robin Williams’ death came from his best friend Billy Crystal, who posted on Twitter simply: “No words.”
When someone close to us dies — especially in a sudden and tragic way — the grief is so deep that we truly don’t have any words to describe it. And while Robin Williams may have lost the battle to take care of himself, it appears that he did take care of his family through a number of sophisticated estate planning strategies that will at least spare them the pain and cost of a public probate court proceeding.
According to a Forbes article following Williams’ death, Williams had significant real estate holdings, including a 653-acre Napa Valley estate and a waterfront home in Tiburon, California. The Napa Valley estate has been for sale since April with a price tag of $29.9 million; the Tiburon home has been valued at $6 million. According to public records, the equity in the properties totals approximately $25 million, depending on the final sale price of the Napa estate.
Both properties are held in the name of a real estate holding trust, which can remove the value of the properties from Williams’ estate and result in significant estate tax savings for his family.
Williams also set up a trust for his three children that splits the fund into equal distributions for each child once they reach the ages of 21, 25 and 30. This trust was established during his 2009 divorce from his second wife.
This is the one place we see Williams could have done better. Leaving assets to children outright when they reach specific ages is a common strategy of estate planning attorneys, but isn’t the best strategy. Instead, Williams could have left the distributions in lifetime asset protection trusts that his children could have controlled as co-trustees or trustees, but would have been protected from lawsuits, divorce, bankruptcy or any other type of creditor and future estate taxes for generations.
What has not been determined is whether Williams had a life insurance policy. If the policy was older than two years or so, it should pay out. Newer policies would probably be void since the cause of death was suicide.
Of course, the most valuable part of Williams’ estate is likely to be the ongoing royalties for his roles in movies and television as well as his comedy material. It is unclear whether the estate will be responsible for managing these or if Williams established a trust or corporate entity for this purpose.
While most of us do not have the wealth that Robin Williams enjoyed during his lifetime, we can all protect what we do have and ensure it passes to our loved ones using estate planning devices like a revocable living trust. A trust allows our assets to pass outside probate so our families will not have to endure a court proceeding or have assets frozen during the probate process. This can be a lifeline for grieving families in trying times.
One of the main goals of our law practice is to help families plan for the safe, successful transfer of wealth to the next generation.